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Becoming Shakespeare [Hardcover]

Jack Lynch
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

24 April 2008
Becoming Shakespeare begins where most Shakespeare stories end, with his death in 1616. Jack Lynch has written the definitive biography of Shakespeare’s afterlife: the fascinating tale of his unlikely transformation from provincial playwright to universal Bard. Unlike later literary giants, Shakespeare created no stir when he died. Within a few years he was nearly forgotten. And when London’s theatres were shut down in 1642, he seemed destined for oblivion. With the Restoration in 1660, however, the theatres were open once again, and Shakespeare began his long ascent. No longer merely one playwright among many, he became the transcendent genius at the heart of English culture. Fifty years after the Restoration scholars began taking him seriously. Fifty years after that he was considered England’s greatest genius. And by 1800 he was practically divine, what Jane Austen called ‘part of an Englishman’s constitution’. Jack Lynch brilliantly chronicles Shakespeare’s afterlife – from the revival of his plays to the decades when his work was co-opted and ‘improved’ by politicians and other playwrights, and culminating with the ‘Bardolatry’ of the Stratford celebration of Shakespeare’s three-hundredth birthday in 1864. Becoming Shakespeare is not only essential reading for anyone intrigued by the myth of Shakespeare, but it also offers a consideration of the vagaries of fame.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Constable (24 April 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1845298233
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845298234
  • Product Dimensions: 14.9 x 22.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,178,466 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"* "The best thing about Jack Lynch's fascinating book is that it helps us to understand that process by which so many of us have come to share Johnson's opinion. That transformation was every bit as contingent and turbulent as one of William Shakespeare's great dramas." - Los Angeles Times Book Review * 'A witty and appealing story of how a superstar was born' - Kirkus Reviews * 'Highly readable... Mr Lynch's account of it is worthy of inclusion on anyone's reading list.' - Dallas Morning News * 'A book for Shakespeareans of all stripes to relish with gusto.' - Booklist"

Book Description

The Untold Story of How a Provincial Playwright Became the World's Foremost Literary Icon

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A hidden history 16 Feb 2013
By Christopher H TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Even those who struggle with Shakespeare's drama will find this very readable book hard to put down. It does two things. The book gives a fascinating overview of how Shakespeare has been presented on stage over the centuries, mapping out the patterns of theatrical performance and fashion. This factor alone makes it an important book. However, essentially this is a history of perceptions: it traces how the public perception of Will Shakespeare has evolved over time, eventually generating the idolisation of today.

Far from debunking Shakespeare's talent, the book is an enthralling and very readable account of how appreciation of his plays has shifted. There have been periods when Shakespeare's drama was forgotten and neglected, periods when it was meddled with and changed, and periods - like ours - when it has been subjected to rigorous scholarship trying to restore the original form.

The book traces the liberties that actors and theatrical companies, editors and publishers have taken with the text. How some embellished and outrageously added to Shakespeare's scripts; how others deliberately censored and cut. Always people asserted that they were "improving", and rendering the text superior: sometimes to press their own moral message (the Victorians zealously expurgated Shakespeare), more often just to make money.

This is an engrossing and scandalous history of what has been done to Shakespeare. It is a tale of compromises and mischief-making, piety and greed within the English theatre and the print trade over the last four centuries. You find that works now revered as monuments always were being fiddled about with.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.3 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Outline of a Rise to Genius 12 Aug 2007
By Timothy Haugh - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I absolutely love Shakespeare and considering him a great genius of the English theater. However, if even those of us who love the Bard are honest, it must be admitted that his reputation did not spring full-blown from the Globe Theater at the turn of the sixteenth century. It took time for him to become Shakespeare as we understand him today. Professor Lynch does an excellent job at sketching out the outlines of this transition in this book.

Professor Lynch reminds us that Shakespeare, though successful in his day, was not considered the greatest playwright of his day. Johnson and Marlowe were much better regarded in most circles. Shakespeare did not adhere to the classical structure of the dramatic form well enough and he often stooped to crude humor. With the closure of the theaters during the Protectorate, it seemed very likely that Shakespeare and his works would be lost to history. Fortunately for us, the Restoration saw the rise of some of the great Shakespearean actors--Garrick, Cibber, Siddons, Kemble, etc.--who really began to move Shakespeare to the fore.

Professor Lynch also reminds us that, until the twentieth century, Shakespeare's text was not as sacrosanct as it is now. He discusses the fact that the most popular forms of Shakespeare until very recently were adaptations and bowdlerizations. (In fact, the word "bowdlerization" comes from Henrietta and Thomas Bowlder, who made a career out of deleting the "naughty bits" from Shakespeare.) Additionally, there were many attempts to forge and otherwise pass off plays as written by Shakespeare. So much so that it is difficult, even to this day, to ferret out some truths.

It may be hard for some to accept in a culture where Shakespeare is so revered, but it did not have to be so. Professor Lynch does a fine job of showing this transition from successful playwright to demigod. There may be some who feel Lynch is merely trying to bring Shakespeare down a peg but I don't see that at all. He is looking for an honest assessment and he tries to give us one. He illustrates his point well in the closing paragraphs of the book: "Shakespeare was unappreciated not because the world was stupid, unable to understand his true greatness until centuries passed. By the standard of 1650, Shakespeare really did deserve his B-plus, and not much more...the biggest testimony to Shakespeare's greatness may be that he changed what it means to be great." It shows respect to his greatness that we try to understand what really happened. This book is definitely worth reading.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Posthumous Genius 3 Jan 2008
By R. Hardy - Published on
William Shakespeare was a genius. Everyone knows it, but he became a genius only after his death. That's the surprising lesson in _Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard_ (Walker) by Jack Lynch. The author is a professor of English who is a well-known scholar of Samuel Johnson. Johnson himself had plenty of admiration for Shakespeare, but also criticism, and told Boswell that "Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault." That's the sort of candor that eventually became forbidden; by the nineteenth century, Lynch says, "Criticizing the Bard - even hinting that he was less than perfect - was becoming the literary equivalent of blasphemy." And yet, Shakespeare had been what Lynch calls a "B plus" playwright during his lifetime, a popular artist who had a lucrative career, but there were other playwrights doing the same thing. Shakespeare made no plans to have his plays published, and his friends arranged only seven years after his death in 1616 for his collected works to be printed. A second edition came out nine years later, and then there was nearly nothing. His plays were performed less often, simply because they were old fashioned, and then in the middle of the seventeenth century there was the closing of the theaters during Cromwell's rule. It could have happened that Shakespeare would take a respected place at the level of his contemporary Ben Jonson who had more critical esteem during his own life, but is now known mostly to enthusiasts of literature rather than to the masses. How is it that Shakespeare became Shakespeare?

Lynch focuses on stories about the plays and their production, appreciation, and alteration over the centuries. It starts with Shakespeare's death in 1616 which got no public attention. Shakespeare's reputation got its initial restoration by a quirk of history. The newly instituted theatrical companies, after theaters were closed down by the Puritans, needed plays to perform but nothing had been written for the stage in decades. Shakespeare's languishing works were still available, and approvable by the Lord Chamberlain, and he came into fashion again. The plays were not good enough for all the uses to which people wanted to apply them. Some felt Shakespeare's plays needed improvement in various ways. "For much of the last four hundred years," says Lynch, "they were rarely presented as he wrote them." As early as 1662, people started blending and changing the texts. Some of the changes were minor and could be charitably viewed as "a helpful tidying-up" to keep the ancient words from being a puzzle to modern ears. There were, however, more radical changes like a _King Lear_ with a happy ending, brought out in 1681 and still performed into the nineteenth century. The funniest chapter here is "Domesticating Shakespeare", making him fit to be presented to children; the the brother-and-sister team of Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler in the early nineteenth century brought out _The Family Shakespeare_, and bowdlerized versions of the play are still the ones found in some school editions.

After a chapter devoted to forgeries of Shakespeare, Lynch winds up with "Worshipping Shakespeare", concentrating on the literary pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon. Stratford was just an English town, and it was not until well after its most famous citizen had died that people came to see William Shakespeare's home. So many came to see it that they annoyed the owner of the property, the Reverend Francis Gastrell. First in 1756, he cut down the mulberry tree that Shakespeare planted in the garden (and Shakespeare may actually have done so) because so many tourists visited and wanted cuttings. (Wood from the tree, or supposed to be from the tree, became carved into trinkets that were hugely valued as icons.) Then, because he didn't want to pay taxes on Shakespeare's house (and because of continued enragements toward tourists) he pulled the house down in 1759. The home is gone, but tourists can come and see Shakespeare's burial place, and birth place, and his wife's cottage, just as did such fans as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Washington Irving. The latter enjoyed being a tourist so much that he did not mind being shown relics of dubious authenticity: "I am always of easy faith in such matters, and am ever willing to be deceived where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing." Relics and pilgrimages are tributes to religious figures, and at the end of his book, Lynch writes, "Our story is about the long process that turned a very competent playwright into a demigod who transcended the human condition." His book is an insightful examination of a peculiar history. Lynch shows we have always changed Shakespearean texts for different reasons, some of them laudable; that people through the centuries have seen fit to make even silly or inappropriate changes to these ancient works is perhaps one of the greatest of tributes the Bard has earned.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fair Shake 26 July 2007
By Christian Schlect - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Professor Lynch has written a very interesting book about the steady rise--after a very slow start--in reputation and fame of the finest writer. It will be enjoyed by most general readers interested in Mr. Shakespeare.

The section at the end of this book, which the author's provides on further reading, will be quite helpful for those seeking informed guidance through the thicket of books ever available on the great Englishman.
4.0 out of 5 stars Unique approach 25 Mar 2014
By B. Wilfong - Published on
“Becoming Shakespeare” is not as good as other books I have read concerning things Shakespeare, but it is the only one I have read on how his work and reputation survived and grew despite the Puritan shutdown of the theatres in the 1640s, which killed off the memory of many of his contemporaries. I give this text kudos for simply being unique in that respect.
The author, Jack Lynch, writes in a colloquial style aimed at connecting with the general reader and I appreciated that approach. He also does not arrange the book chronologically (examining how Shakespeare’s reputation grew over the last four centuries) but rather he examines the phenomenon of Shakespeare’s extraordinary ascent through topic. The text looks at how Shakespeare became the entity he is today by exploring these eight areas: reviving, performing, studying, improving, co-opting, domesticating, forging, and worshipping. Although some of these chapters are more valuable to proving Lynch’s thesis then others, none of them seem out of place in this book. Especially engaging is the chapter titled “Forging Shakespeare”.
Another strength of this book is how Mr. Lynch keeps reminding his reader that Shakespeare was not one of us. He was a product of his time, and would not recognize our world. His determination to keep Shakespeare in his own time, and not co-opt him for a modern agenda is something many writers do not do.
The Epilogue of “Becoming Shakespeare” (pages 273-280) is an interesting animal. The first 4.5 pages are just awful. They include a list of languages Shakespeare has been translated into. Seriously? However, the last 3 pages contain some of the best writing in the text, and puts succinctly into words how Shakespeare changed the standards by which we judge greatness. It is a thrilling conclusion.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not just for an age 28 Dec 2010
By C. Ebeling - Published on
Let's get this out of the way first: Jack Lynch believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and in his history of how Shakespeare's literary legacy was posthumously preserved and his reputation grew to deity status in the ensuing centuries, he only mentions the Anti-Stratfordian theories once, at the beginning, in order to summarily dismiss them. Fine by me.

Becoming Shakespeare is intended for the general reader with an interest in (mostly) literary and (some) social history. Lynch, a Samuel Johnson scholar who teaches at Rutgers, is an entertainingly erudite storyteller who relishes irony and twinkly wit with a healthy dose of skepticism. Shakespeare, he posits, did everything possible to disappear without a trace. He had retired from the London theater world and died in little old Stratford a few, undistinguished years later. Extant printed copies of his plays upon his death were irregular and few because plays were meant to be performed, not read--the First Folio that anthologized 36 of his plays not appearing until seven years after the bard's death. Lynch enjoys the irony that it is the Puritans who closed the theaters a few decades later who ensured Shakespeare's longevity. When the theaters reopened after the restoration of Charles II to the throne, an arts-thwarted culture needed material and there was Shakespeare's work at the ready to be revived. In the ensuing centuries, Shakespeare's work inspired/survived actors, tinkering, censorship, politics, forgery, the rise of criticism and scholarship, not to mention deification. Lynch tells the most salient stories clustering around these themes and provides an annotated reading list for those who want to probe further.

There is a part of me that says, yes, the Puritans killed the competition and therefore created a vacuum that Shakespeare's work could fill, thus giving it legs, but what about that First Folio, published in 1623? Without it, there would have been no revival forty years later. What about his contemporary Ben Jonson saying upon his death, that Shakespeare was "not for an age but for all time"? What about evidence that Shakespeare continued to visit London and stay in touch even after the return to Stratford. There were perhaps a few more forces at work ensuring that Shakespeare would indeed have something of a posthumous life, that he would survive intact for the Restoration than Lynch explores. But that's okay, it really doesn't rattle his case because he is concerned with what got started years later, in 1660.
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